Susan Browning wanted to be an educator since she was 13, when she volunteered as a teacher's aide for the kindergarten class at the New Jersey school where she was an eighth-grader. She was mostly just an extra set of hands, helping to put on tiny coats. But the once-a-week job convinced her of the right path for her life.

"I just knew," she said. "It was so exciting to be around them. Everything is such a wonder at that age."

Browning pursued her goal with single-mindedness, becoming the first person in her family to go to college, where she held three jobs to make ends meet. As a teacher, she worked with students who often needed the most help -- students in special education and whose parents were migrant workers.

Browning, who has been a principal in Loudoun County for 14 years, most recently at Seldens Landing Elementary School in Leesburg, has received The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Loudoun County. She was nominated by dozens of teachers and parents, including kindergarten teacher Dixie Fay, who wrote in her letter of support that Browning was a "superb administrator," who is known around school as the "Energizer Bunny."

"She can be found pulling weeds with the custodians, cleaning lunch trays, helping to get kindergartners on the bus or finding new materials for new teachers," Fay wrote.

Browning, 57, said a critical part of being a principal is pitching in when necessary. Doing so demonstrates her lifelong commitment to hard work and goal setting.

After working as a kindergarten and third-grade teacher and then as a special education consultant in New Jersey, Browning spent eight years in migrant education in Winchester, first as a teacher and then as a program supervisor.

She recalled going to work camps for traveling apple pickers, looking for children baby-sitting their younger siblings and trying to enroll them in school instead. Teachers had access to the migrant children for only a few months; by Halloween, they had moved on to the next job. But while they were there, Browning could help -- and not just as a teacher. With a master's degree in special education, she was able to arrange testing for children who appeared to have learning difficulties. She organized weekend picnics and activities to keep the children involved.

"It absolutely is a labor of love," she said.

She went on to earn a doctorate degree in education, writing her dissertation on migrant education.

Browning was an assistant principal and principal in Frederick County before arriving in Loudoun in 1989 to become assistant principal at Rolling Ridge Elementary School. Since then, she has led Sully and Potowmack elementary schools, before opening Seldens Landing in 2001.

Her staff particularly praised her calm reaction to Sept. 11, 2001, when many of the school's students were taken out of class by their parents, one by one, after the terrorist attacks. Later, teachers and children learned that a student's father had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon. Browning recommended forming a memorial hand bell choir, and the Christopher Newton Memorial Freedom Ringers -- made up of fourth- and fifth-graders -- was born.

Browning is known for her stunts to encourage students to meet reading goals. One year she sat for an entire day in a large nest, dressed as a cardinal, the school's mascot. She kissed a pig for another year's goal. She said this year's activity hadn't been chosen yet, but she offered this hint: She once owned a boa constrictor as a pet and considers herself snake friendly.

Outside of work, Browning said she tries to be "the person God wants me to be." She is an active member of Round Hill Methodist Church and enjoys Christian music. Michael Card is her favorite. She has three children and a 2-year-old granddaughter.

She also is a breast cancer survivor who took up swing dancing with her husband as a way to "do something positive" after that difficult experience.

Browning said the award reflected as much on the teachers and staff at Seldens Landing as on herself.

"It's hard to believe I'm being recognized for doing my job," she said.

Susan Browning, Loudoun winner of The Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, is principal of Seldens Landing.